Given Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci's pedigree as adapters and re-inventors of such franchises as Star Trek, Transformers and Mission: Impossible, one might expect a little-known comic book to be a relatively minor challenge to bring to the silver screen. But the duo insist that Cowboys and Aliens, their follow-up to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was no easier to adapt.
The movie, a mix of sci-fi and wild west, is based on the Platinum Comics graphic novel written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley. Set in the mid-1800s in Arizona, it deals with the invasion by an extraterrestrial species with plans to enslave humanity, but cowboys and native Apache have other plans. Orci and Kurtzman are acting as producers and writers on the project for DreamWorks; Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg are also producing.
In adapting the comic, "we always have to remove ourselves a little bit from it ... in the same way that a screenwriter adapts a novel," Kurtzman said in an exclusive interview Friday in Beverly Hills, Calif. "It's very rare that you adapt a novel word for word and structurally as it was written as a novel. You have to find a way to say, 'All right, how am I going to take this blueprint and turn it into a screenplay?' In the case of Cowboys and Aliens, what I think is true to the spirit of the comic book is the idea that it's a genre mash-up—it's a western and a sci-fi movie and everything we love about both genres—and they just kind of collide. But I think there was an enormous amount of invention in Cowboys and Aliens for us."
Kurtzman said that he and his longtime writing partner, Orci, were unfamiliar with the comic book prior to working on it; in fact, it was the name alone that hooked the pair. "We were not actually very aware of it," he said. "We didn't know it at all. It was the title. That was literally it. It was just [hearing] the title, and we went, 'We're in. I don't know what it's about, but we're in.'"
Meanwhile, Orci and Kurtzman are equally excited about Masi Oka's The Defenders, which the Heroes actor created and will produce. "We developed it with Masi," Kurtzman said. "When we were writing Transformers, he came to see us and pitched us the movie, and we thought, 'This is such a wonderful way to reinvent kind of an Amblin movie.' So we've been developing it with him for the last year while we've been working on these other movies and then sold it a couple of weeks ago."
The Defenders, which was just given the go-ahead by DreamWorks, follows a group of gamer teens who have to come together to save the world, sort of a real-world MMORPG.
Kurtzman was mum about specific details, but he hinted that the film would recall kid-themed adventures of the 1980s. "What we can tell you is that we grew up on movies like The Goonies and movies like Back to the Future, where kids were thrown into these extraordinary circumstances and the movie itself allowed you to buy into the reality of it even though it was so escapist," he explains. "Those kinds of movies are deceptively tricky, and they're not easy to come by; a really good version of an idea like that is very, very hard to come by. So when Masi came in, even though he just had the kernel of something, there was an extremely personal angle to the story that made it an access point that I think will reach kind of everybody, and that's what made us say, 'We've got to do this.' But it's kind of a kid's sci-fi adventure."
The pair have a full slate of projects beyond The Defenders. Paul Attanasio, who wrote Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, is writing Matt Helm, which is a reinvention of the Dean Martin movies and Donald Hamilton novels and which Orci/Kurtzman are producing. "That's sort of an action comedy tonally in the world of Out of Sight or Ocean's Eleven," Kurtzman said. In addition, David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, is writing a movie called Deep Sea Cowboys about two salvage crews.
"They land on billion-dollar supertankers and try to save them before the sink, in real time," Orci said. "It's based on a real Wired article, and there's real people who do it. It's unbelievable."